February 27th, 2011
Many surprises on my last day of retreat...the first comes as I try to find the chapel for Sunday Mass. No one is in the two chapels I have visited before. It turns out that what I thought was a lecture hall is actually an art gallery and temporary parish church. The paintings mentioned in my guidebook hang along the walls, possibly restored by a team of art professionals who also teach here. At the festive Sunday lunch, many forbidden treats are served: sausages, veal, bakery cookies dipped in dark chocolate and caffè espresso. Between the pasta and the meat course comes a tray of whole Sicilian lemons. I take one and carefully observe what is being done with them. The monk beside me cuts away the peel leaving all the white pulp. Then he cuts it into slices, salts them, pops one into his mouth and proclaims it, “Buono.” It has to be enormously sour but I follow his example, judiciously adding a bit of veal to take it down a notch. After lunch, as I stroll through a courtyard with fountain topped by a statue of Saint Benedict (he is listing to one side, his bishop’s hat giving him the look of a guided missile), I ask the young monk who met me when I arrived where he is from. “It is a special place,” he says. “Is it in Sicily?” I ask. He pauses. “Mafia,” he shyly replies.
March 28th, 2011
The church across the street, San Bernardo alle Terme, was created from one of the round exercise rooms at the corners of the Baths of Diocletian. It took the Counter-Reformation and a widowed noblewoman to get the job done. Caterina Nobili Sforza befriended a French reformer of the Cistercian Order when he came to Rome to defend himself against accusations of heresy. He did win his case, but, we are told, “died a broken man” in the monastery and church complex Caterina built for him and his monks. This history helps me put the building’s decoration in perspective. Upon entering, you are surrounded by eight towering sculptures, the masterworks of Camillo Mariani from Vicenza. These figures, in effect, are decorating a “mini-Pantheon”; instead of pagan gods and goddesses, we see Saints Jerome and Augustine, known for their intellect; others, Francis of Assisi and Mary Magdalene, are famous for their deep faith. This is always the balance sought by the best reformers and it is enshrined here, a tribute that is hidden in plain sight.